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UC Study Mines Big Data To Track Health Outcomes For At-Risk Youth

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The vast majority of teens who attempt suicide survive.

But those survivors are by no means out of the woods when it comes to their overall health, according to University of California, Merced Public Health Professor Sidra Goldman-Mellor.

The problem, says Goldman-Mellor, is that most research about teens who attempt suicide looks at the psychological risk factors connected to this at-risk group, such as depression.

But she says there's a big gap when it comes to research on the overall health outcomes of adolescents who have attempted suicide. 

Based on Goldman-Mellor's post-doctoral studies (and research conducted outside the U.S.) she thinks it's likely this adolescent population develops more physical health problems down the road, compared with their peers. 

Now she and her fellow researchers at the University of California are hoping a big data study will lead to big answers. The research, which is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) will analyze statewide hospital data.

There are between five and six-hundred thousand teens who come into emergency rooms in California every year, according to Goldman-Mellor. Of the unique individuals in that group, approximately eight to nine thousand have attempted suicide. 

That's the cohort the UC study will focus on.

The UC research team will track adolescents who came to a California emergency room in 2010 as the result of a suicide attempt. Then they'll look at how often those teens returned for an ER visit or in-patient hospital stay over the subsequent five years.

"Right now we can't intervene because we just don't know if they're coming in more frequently because they've been assaulted, or they're getting sick with the flu or getting asthma or diabetes," explains Goldman-Mellor.

But the hospital data will enable researchers to track the specific diagnosis at each hospital visit.

Goldman-Mellor says the researchers will compare health data from the sample group with teen peers who were treated in the ER for reasons other than attempted suicide.

The zip code data for each hospital visitor will also allow researchers to compare health outcomes for young people in rural versus urban areas of California.

Goldman-Mellor says it's the first research project in the U.S. to look at such a large sample of hospital data for teens in this at-risk demographic. 

She hopes the work will shed light on the social determinants of health among youth who attempt suicide. For instance, whether a person's neighborhood environment or wider economic shifts could play a role in health outcomes for vulnerable adolescents.

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